DAUPHIN ISLAND, Alabama Teams of workers in protective boots and gloves scoured Alabama's Dauphin Island on Wednesday for washed up tar balls and tar patties that have put the 14-mile-long resort in the front line of the state's fight against the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
The invading oil debris, heralding the arrival on Alabama's coast of parts of the huge, fragmented oil slick spewing from BP's blown-out undersea well, started coming ashore late on Tuesday on the inhabited barrier beach island.
Dauphin Island residents, who are used to hurricanes roaring out of the Gulf, were waking up to the reality that they would not escape the impact of the six-week-old spill which had so far mostly affected Louisiana to the southwest.
"It's something we'd rather not have happen, but we all knew the possibility was there, and the island, as a people, are very resilient. We will find a way to work through this process," Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier said.
The tar blobs and patties, which ranged in size from golf balls to the size of a fist, were scattered along the shoreline and could also be seen bobbing in the water. "They're very gooey," Collier said.
He said the island's lifestyle, environment and economy had already been hit, the latter through visitors' cancellations.
The cleanup workers collected the oil debris in plastic bags and shoveled up sand fouled with an oily sheen. Scores of fishing boats contracted to the oil containment effort set out to lay protective boom around the island.
As they watched TV images showing the spilled oil clogging Louisiana wetlands to the southwest, residents had been hoping that winds and currents might keep the crude from their shore. Instead, winds pushed the slick toward Alabama this week.
"It is so depressing. It is really happening. It really won't go away. And the American people really don't know what has hit them," said Caroline Graves, who has a vacation home on the island.
On May 8, scattered tar balls had washed up from the Gulf onto the island's main beach, but were quickly collected.
Alabama authorities on Tuesday closed state oyster beds, suspended local fishing and discouraged swimming on Dauphin Island due to the presence of the oil.
Federal authorities have closed around 31 percent of U.S. Gulf waters to fishing. The major tourist area of northwest Florida has up to now remained clean of oil.
FLORIDA PANHANDLE ON ALERT
That could change soon because a segment of the oil slick is floating closer to the Florida Panhandle coast, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Florida Governor Charlie Crist told reporters his state is prepared to respond. "We understand what is happening and are doing everything we can to protect our beautiful state".
He said oil-collecting boom had already been deployed offshore and more was being readied to keep off the crude which could hit the northwest Florida shoreline as early as Friday.
In addition, skimming vessels have been dispatched to collect oil and tar balls that are now within 10 miles of the state shoreline.
Crist said Florida has also launched a massive advertising campaign, backed in part by $25 million provided by BP, aimed at keeping visitors coming to the Sunshine State, which has a $65 billion-a-year tourism industry.
On Alabama's Dauphin Island, which has 1,300 year-round residents and tens of thousands of annual visitors, the arriving oil spelled immediate danger for wildlife and fish.
At least one tern, an endangered bird species, fished in the oily water and a blue heron stood in the sea with dark oil coating its thin legs.
Tuesday was also the start of the official red snapper season, now impacted by the oil emergency.
"I told my kids: 'Tell your grandkids you ate the last two snappers from the Gulf,'" said Donna Jones, a visitor from Stateline, Mississippi.
Dauphin Island, accessible via a long bridge from the mainland, has four churches, a post office and a few shops and most of its sea-facing houses are built on stilts for protection against a different annual threat: hurricanes.
But some fear the invading oil will be worse than any hurricane. "The Gulf is dead," said Darlene Stewart, a tourist from Pensacola, Florida, expressing fear of massive pollution.
(Additional reporting by Michael Peltier in Tallahassee, Florida)
(Writing by Matthew Bigg, editing by Pascal Fletcher and Cynthia Osterman)